In her book From the Beast to the Blonde: on fairy tales and their tellers Marina Warner states that “Bluebeard is a bogey who fascinates: his very name stirs associations with sex, virility, male readiness and desire. His bloody chamber which his latest wife opens with the key he has forbidden her to use, reveals the dead bodies of her many predecessors, and warns her of her impeding “doom” ( p. 241). Wendy Haslem focuses on one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Ted’ (series 2, episode 11) as a contemporary revision of the ‘Bluebeard’ fairy tale. Crucial to ‘Ted’ and ‘Bluebeard’ is the charismatic, but ultimately duplicitous protagonist. Ted appears to be ‘the perfect husband’, but is actually a dangerous killer-robot, a throwback to 1950’s values trapped within an obsessive cycle of seduction and deceit. The links between Bluebeard and Ted are explored, as is the interdiction, its violation and the vital role played by curiosity in the tales. It identifies the complexity of vision as it conceals and reveals the secrets of the domestic space.
The use of fairy tales in film or television narration is not a new concept, it’s the way that these ancient tales are reinterpreted in contemporary media that exposes fascinating changes in the zeitgeist. A comparison between the older and newer tales can reveal the differing tastes, desires, preoccupations and terrors of the cultures in which these tales circulate. Many contemporary films draw extensively from seventeenth century fairy tales, producing narratives which become palimpsests, a collision of the new written over the old.  But it is a mistake to imagine that seventeenth century fairy tales were set in stone.
In her analysis of the history of oral tales, Marina Warner points to the inadequacy of terms like ‘original’ to describe seventeenth fairy tales. (Warner, 1994) Prior to the invention of the printing press fairy tales were transmitted orally, therefore amplifying their fluidity and dynamism, shifting emphasis and changing with every retelling. Reworking fairy tales in contemporary media adds fuel to the postmodern claim that there are no new stories, only stories that are new by degree, or by comparison. It is with an examination of the similarities and differences between the tales that were initially documented and most popular and contemporary versions of the same tale that we can trace a line back in time to link the tales and to look at the cultural shifts that are exposed by this comparison. Contemporary cult television serials like Buffy the Vampire Slayer rely on fairy tales more than might be imagined.
Unlike other articles in this issue, my focus will rest on one specific episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whilst the scope might appear to be restricted, the correlation between this single episode and the corresponding fairy tale reveal ideas and themes that prove to be central issues within the entire series. The episode that interests me most is called “Ted”. It was made in 1997 (Season 2, Episode 11), directed by Bruce Seth Green  and written by David Greenwalt alongside Buffy creator and visionary Joss Whedon. The central conflict of this episode revolves around the developing antagonism and potential threat to the family when a lone stranger appears in Buffy’s kitchen without warning and proceeds to seduce her mother. Whilst Ted (John Ritter) appears from nowhere (like the conventional western hero riding into town), trailing a long career playing the ‘perfect’ husband/father in American television which he proceeds to corrupt and distort when he plays Ted against type and in the mold of the fairy tale villain, Bluebeard.
This episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is based on Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” fairy tale which first appeared in print three hundred years before. The confluence between the fairy tale and the television program is clearly evident in characterization, masculine duplicity, the representation of the Gothic underworld in Ted’s domestic space, the prohibition/violation dyad and the collapsing of boundaries expressed through the representation of the uncanny and the way it undermines vision, this latter aspect being the most revealing link between “Ted” and the “Bluebeard” fairy tale. An analysis of the constellation of fears and fantasies in this episode reveals its base in the “Bluebeard” fairy tale, but also displays a conscious reworking of its origins.
Firstly, a brief outline of the most popular, violent and influential version of the fairy tale. Perrault’s 1697 appropriation of “Bluebeard” introduces an exceptionally wealthy man who has everything that he desires except for a wife. Bluebeard’s blue beard was considered to be rather grotesque, and consequently he experienced difficulty in finding admirers. One attractive element that Bluebeard held in his favor was his wealth. Perrault details Bluebeard’s vast array of properties in the city and the country and lists his possessions of valuable tapestries, gold, silver, and gilded coaches. Whilst his appearance screamed danger, Bluebeard’s accumulation of wealth sparkled seductively in the way that only a fairy tale fortune could shine.
In a nearby town lived a mother and her two beautiful daughters. Considering these young women suitable for a spouse, Bluebeard asked for the hand of either. When the subject was broached both raised objections based on Bluebeard’s grotesque physical appearance. Furthermore the women were wary of him because they knew that he had been married previously, and that each of his wives had mysteriously disappeared without a trace. In an effort to become better acquainted with the women, Bluebeard invited them to attend a party at one of his houses. The celebration lasted for eight days. Perrault writes: “there was a constant round of picnics, hunting and fishing expeditions, dances, dinners, and luncheons; and they never slept at all, through spending all the night in playing merry pranks upon each other” (80). This constant merriment finally turned the head of the youngest daughter who began to see Bluebeard in a more favorable light. Upon their return to town, they were married.
When their first month of married life had passed, Bluebeard informed his wife that he needed to depart in order to attend to business in a distant part of the country. Bluebeard handed his wife a collection of keys. She was allowed access to every room, storeroom, jewel-box and casket, but with one exception. Bluebeard warned his wife: As regards this little key, it is the key of the small room at the end of the long passage on the lower floor. You may open everything, you may go everywhere, but I forbid you to enter this little room. And I forbid you so seriously that if you were indeed to open the door, I should be so angry that I might do anything. (Perrault, 80) In his presence, the new bride agreed to comply with her husband’s interdiction.
As soon as Bluebeard left the home friends and neighbors descended on the castle, relieved that this intimidating figure was absent and that they were free to admire Bluebeard’s wealth. His wife derived little amusement from her recently acquired possessions, her mind was fixated on the contents of the room on the lower floor, the room that Bluebeard had forbidden her entry. Her curiosity became so great that she left her guests and ran down the staircase, which Perrault describes as: “so precipitately that twice or thrice she nearly broke her neck” (81). She hesitated when she reached the locked door to the forbidden chamber. “There she paused for a while, thinking of the prohibition which her husband had made, and reflecting that harm might come to her as a result of disobedience” (81).
Overwhelmed with curiosity and temptation she opened the locked door. In the darkness of the room she could not distinguish anything at first. Crossing the threshold she was shocked to realize that the floor was covered with blood and reflected in this pool were the decapitated bodies of women that hung from the walls. Perrault writes: “These were all the wives of Bluebeard, whose throats had been cut, one after the other” (81). In her shock the key fell from her hand and landed on the bloodstained floor. Shaken, she picked it up, closed the door and returned to her chamber to regain her composure and clean the key. Her efforts proved to be futile, Perrault explains: “For the key was bewitched, … there was no means of cleaning it completely. When the blood was removed from one side, it reappeared on the other” (82). That evening Bluebeard returned home unexpectedly. His wife feigned cheerfulness on his return.
The next morning Bluebeard requested the return of the keys. He noticed that the small key was missing and guessed what had taken place in his absence. Bluebeard demanded the return of the key. She threw herself upon her husband’s mercy, begging for forgiveness and assuring her repentance but Bluebeard refused to acquiesce, telling her that she must die immediately. He seized his wife by her hair and raised his cutlass, preparing to decapitate her. At that moment there was a monumentally loud banging on the gates. They swung open and the heroine’s brothers rode in on horses, drew their swords and charged in the direction of Bluebeard. He dropped his wife and ran to escape. The brothers were too fast and they caught Bluebeard and plunged their swords into his body killing him immediately.
After his death, Bluebeard’s wife inherited the estate as he had no other living heirs. She divided the money amongst her family and found herself a worthy man. The heroine, her new husband and family lived happily ever after.
This version proved to be one of the most violent , but also the most popular of the 17th century fairy tales that were committed to print. The brothers Grimm published “Fitcher’s Bird” at the same time, but their version was censored and deleted after its first printing. Perrault was not the first to commit this tale to paper, but his appropriation eclipsed all others as the most popular, violent and controversial version, one which shows a marked disparity between the heroine’s ‘crime’ and the punishment intended. Considering its heavy reliance on symbols, Perrault’s version is a favorite of Freudian analysts who are fascinated with blue beards, keys, locks, stains, forbidden rooms and bloody chambers, perceiving them as symbols of sinister unconscious desires. Misunderstood to be aimed squarely at children, with adults as collateral targets, “Bluebeard” ensures its currency with its constant revision.
Across its many incarnations “Bluebeard” can be identified by the following elements: two diametrically opposed characters, the prohibitor and the transgressor, a structural paradox – the interdiction and its transgression, the floating signifier, gothic architecture, unmapped spaces and concealed rooms. The primary dyad that all “Bluebeard” narratives pivot on is a scenario involving prohibition and the violation of this interdiction. Doors, locks and keys suggest spaces that are controlled and prohibited. In “Ted” Buffy violates this interdiction, the prohibition is not to move into the Bluebeard figure’s space, not to investigate him beyond the surface. “Ted” uses these symbols to rework the “Bluebeard” fairy tale. The episode begins with Buffy coming home slipping her key into the lock, surprised to find that the door is already open.
It is because “Bluebeard” lacks narrative logic and evenhandedness particularly in its characterisation that the response to this tale can be incredulous. Questions arising include: Is Bluebeard’s prohibition actually a tantalizing invitation? Why does he give his wife the key and specific directions, but refuse her access to the bloody chamber? What does the forbidden chamber symbolize? What is the relationship between the new wife and her predecessors? Why does she fall in love with a man who she does not know and who has plans for her murder? Does she love him, or is she merely dazzled by his wealth? And most vexing of all… Why does Bluebeard want to murder his new wife and why did he decapitate all of his past wives? Many of these questions can also be redirected towards “Ted”.
The focal point of “Ted” is John Ritter who brings to the role a long and varied career in television and film since the early 1970s. In 1978 he was in How to Survive the Seventies and maybe even bump into Happiness , he played Satan in Wholly Moses in 1980, he was in a remake of Shadow of a Doubt (1998), Sling Blade with Billy Bob Thornton in 1997 and Bride of Chucky (1998). Some highlights of his television career include: Hawaii Five-0 (1968), The Waltons (1973-76), The Streets of San Francisco (1972), Kojak (1973), Petrocelli and Rhoda (1974), Starsky and Hutch (1975) and The Love Boat (1977). More recently he has appeared in Touched by an Angel (1994), Ally Mc Beal (1997), Chicago Hope (1994), Felicity (1998) and currently the renaissance of Ritter’s career is being revitalized with his starring role in Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter (2003).
But John Ritter is best known best for the television serial Three’s Company (1977) where he played an aspiring chef, Jack Tripper, a name which is appears to be too close to the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ for comfort. Whilst the connection between Tripper and Ripper might appear to be a stretch, it is in the development of Ted that the ironic association between the murderers is exposed. In “Ted”, Ritter appears as disguised evil, a dark parody of Jack Tripper, but a relative of Jack the Ripper. In Buffy, Ted’s character is both doubled and split. Retrospective intertextual references contribute to the doubling of Ted.
Informed audiences recall his most popular television profile, one that is alarmingly similar, but less sinister. Within the episode, Ted becomes a split, schizophrenic character with a healthy paranoia and a hyper-controlling streak. He is chillingly omnipresent, appearing without any sound or warning, a pre-millennial version of the startling Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), a character who, in Rebecca, appeared without any indication of her approach.
In From the Beast to the Blonde , Marina Warner writes: “Bluebeard is a bogey who fascinates: his very name stirs associations with sex, virility, male readiness and desire. His bloody chamber, which his latest wife opens with the key he has forbidden her to use, reveals the dead bodies of her many predecessors, and warns her of her impending doom…” (241) To all characters, except Buffy, Ted reflects an image of ‘the perfect husband’ a charismatic figure, a super-salesman, generous with information and new technology and a concerned parent. His character also boasts impressive culinary skills – he makes mini pizzas that Xander describes as, “the finest pizza’s on God’s green earth” and he confesses that these mini pizzas, “have changed his life”.
Ted’s range of domestic skills includes the production of muffins, chocolate chip cookies as well as the mini pizzas, all of which he uses to attract and lure Joyce and to impress the Scooby Gang. Representing the displacement of passion, Ted’s food is devoured by all (except for Buffy) with relish. Ted’s domestic prowess becomes the equivalent of Bluebeard’s treasure trove, a lure for the innocent. But like Bluebeard, this illusion of ‘perfection’ proves to be deceptive: Ted’s food is laced with a drug that is later revealed to share some components with ecstasy, this drug has a tranquilising effect, making the recipient mellow and compliant. With the assistance of this poison, Ted ensures that Joyce and the Scooby Gang look at him through a rose colored drug induced hue.
Disregarding intuition and the distortion of senses is a feature of all versions of the “Bluebeard” tale and mis-recognition is crucial to the narration. “Ted” begins by playing out a scenario of primal scene bewilderment. In the Summers house the sound of glass shattering and a cry of distress emanating from the kitchen, arouses Buffy’s suspicion. When she enters Buffy is disgusted to find that Joyce has dropped a wine glass and that the sound that she heard was an expression of her mother’s passion. Desire misrecognised as danger problematises vision, introduces the uncanny and provokes Buffy’s fabulous line: “Seeing my mother Frenching a guy is definitely a ticket to therapy land”.
Misrecognition is the basis for the uncanny, a phenomenon common to both versions of the tale. The uncanny is a vital force that impacts upon characterization and can be detected throughout the mise-en-scène and within the dark Gothic domestic settings. The uncanny manifests as the familiar becomes defamiliarised. This is evident in the use of food that appears delicious but is actually toxic and strangers who familiarize themselves too quickly within the home, but primarily the uncanny is represented with the inclusion of characters are not who they appear to be, characters representing the possibility of reincarnation. Alongside the myriad of ‘undead’ vampires and demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer , Ted emerges as part human, part cyborg.
Death reincarnate is also evident in the petrified bodies of the decapitated wives that Bluebeard and Ted use to decorate their bloody chambers, wives that have been killed, but cannot be buried. These wives are the ultimate symbol of the uncanny acting as the key that finally unravels Ted’s disguise. The literary theorist Rosemary Jackson writes that the uncanny: “uncovers what is hidden, and, by doing so, effects a disturbing transformation of the familiar into the unfamiliar” (65). Trouble begins when Ted’s disguise literally begins to peel away.
Jacques Derrida’s analysis highlights the uncanny’s fundamental complexity and trickery. In Derrida’s writing the uncanny manifested in the double as well as in mimicry challenges the basic perception of reality. Derrida’s discussion extends the metaphor to focus on the signifier bereft of a fixed referent. He writes, In this speculum with no reality, in this mirror of a mirror, a difference or a dyad does exist, since there are mimes and phantoms. But it is a difference without a referent, without any first or last unit, a ghost that is the phantom of no flesh, wandering about without a past, without any death, birth or presence (Derrida, 1981, 206) This signifier without a referent produces a ghostly ephemerality that is terrifying in its rejection of context. Ted shares with Bluebeard a lack of backstory, no past, no idea where he came from, no sense of history, no other family members, no context. Ted just appears.
The uncanny is defined by a status that is unpredictable and volatile. Uncanny characters are somewhere between life and death, reality and imaginary, the visible and the invisible. Ted is a liminal figure, he seems human, but he is a robot, he appears to die, but he shuts himself down momentarily to re-boot, existing in a realm somewhere between life and death and resurrecting himself on the operating table. In this episode he is named ‘Ted mark III’.
It is revealed that he was sick in the 1950s when his first wife threatened to leave him. He built a robotic version of himself before he died, a double (or in this case a ‘triple’), as Freud says ‘to act as insurance against death’, but beneath his facade he is a robot, and a serial killer, projecting his anxiety about death across the bodies of his wives. His mantra is ‘beg to differ’ which is an appropriate motto for Ted expressing his uneasy combination of courtesy and hostility that reveals his destabilization and duplicity. Joan Copjec describes the elusiveness of characters like Ted and Bluebeard who are: “so inalienable that like Dracula and all the other vampires of Gothic and Romantic fiction, [they] cannot even be cast as a shadow or reflected as a mirror image, and yet so insubstantial that like Murnau’s Nosferatu [they] can disappear in a puff of smoke” (119).
In its hidden spaces, secret rooms and in the collection of the bodies of his past wives secreted within, Ted’s home resembles a 1950’s reworking of Bluebeard’s Gothic castle. Early Gothic architecture was originally identified by its towers, spires, turrets, pinnacles and pointed arches, all allowing what Richard Davenport-Hines describes as the urge to reach toward the sky. Featured in contemporary Gothic literature/film and television is an inversion of the focus on elevation with the inclusion of dungeons, cellars, crypts and other subterranean spaces. This Gothic revival is understood as a reaction against the Enlightenment. Davenport-Hines writes, “Enlightenment philosophers sought to dispense with the prejudices, errors, superstitions and fears … but their theories of knowledge, human nature and society seemed dire and dismal to those who believed that fear could be sublime.” (2-3)
The Gothic architectural blueprint has frequently been compared to the Freudian map of the human mind. Repressed, unacceptable desires are concealed at the edges and in the darkened corners of Gothic architecture. The Gothic is fascinated with space that is claustral, space that is constrained and hidden. David Punter writes on the power of Gothic architecture: “The castle represents a world which is terrifying because its limits cannot be known, but the rituals which govern its occupants’ everyday life are even more terrifying in that they represent a kind of knowledge, but a neurotic knowledge which is condemned to circularity.” (Punter, 123)
Ted inherits from “Bluebeard” a domestic space that is not as it first appears. Joan Copjec writes that within the Gothic mansion: “[a]ll its known rooms do not exhaust its space, … there is always one more room, one uncannily extra space lying hidden from sight.” (133) Cordelia’s research shows that Ted has been married four times previously. Her keen visual sense of co-ordination provides the key to Ted’s mystery when she remarks that his rug “doesn’t go with the rest of the décor”, which leads the Scooby gang to roll back the carpet to reveal a trap door hidden beneath.
Under a false floor lies an apartment with décor that has not evolved beyond the 1950s. Upon their entrance the arm of the record player automatically moves, engaging the needle into the groove and the sound begins. As the lights dim the apartment is transformed into the perfect “bunker o’love” according to Xander. Closer inspection reveals flying ducks attached to the venetian blinds which shelter bricked in windows, a metonym representing the impossibility of freedom for those associated with Ted.
Drawing from “Bluebeard”, Ted designates this room as a shrine for the dead. This forbidden space is Ted’s contemporary equivalent of Bluebeard’s bloody chamber. It is the site that conceals and reveals the detritus of his failed romances. It also reveals Ted’s compulsive obsession with the cycle of seduction and deceit – revealed explicitly when he collapses time and wives during a maniacal rant to Joyce: “You left me once, but I keep bringing you back”. This circular dialogue combined with the anachronistic design of the apartment reveals that Ted is trapped in the 1950s – the time of his first marriage, the time of his (near) death and perhaps even representing a moment better suited to his attempts to express and maintain patriarchal authority. It is the insistent challenge to what he perceives as his ‘birthright’ that provokes him to kill. Writing on the cyborg in Buffy, Susan Owen argues that “what drives him to batter and kill women is their assertion of independence and autonomy” (30) It is this scenario of prohibition and violation that links all “Bluebeard” narratives.
The rescuers in Perrault’s “Bluebeard” are condensed and revised to become Buffy, the symbol of responsibility in this episode and throughout the series. Contrasting with the fairy tale’s desire to create, destroy and recreate the heterosexual couple, this episode introduces an outsider disguised as the ‘perfect husband’, who threatens to impose a conventional nuclear family unit on the single parent family. Ted represents a virulent threat, one that if given a foothold, could become the catalyst for the implosion of the family from within. The matrilineal social order is threatened and then reaffirmed, but finally it remains in a state that seems provisional.
Vision is an issue explored in all Bluebeard narratives and “Ted” continues the theme of restricted vision in it’s refusal to depict the equivalent of ‘the money shot’. This revealing shot should be Xander’s point of view as he prises open the door and looks inside Ted’s bloody chamber. The televisual (and cinematic) sequence of a shot of a person looking followed by the corresponding shot of what they see, a scheme designed to facilitate visual pleasure is strangely absent at the climax of this episode. When Xander looks the audience is denied the details of his gaze. Xander’s point of view is replaced by dialogue that retrospectively describes the carnage inside the bloody chamber. The trauma is expressed in words, not images. However, this strategy really only underscores the significance of the missing scene and the desire to see behind the door, finally emphasizing the inadequacy of censorship which can edit out the images, but which cannot erase the desire to see.
“Ted” emphasises the lack of resolution crucial to the serial. The narrative begins with a kiss between Joyce and Ted and it ends with a kiss between Giles and Miss Calendar. There is no real end, but a return to the beginning. Its cyclic nature suggests the potential for the “Bluebeard” narrative to re-emerge. As Susan Owen suggests, Ted is recirculated as a “free floating signifier”‘. (29) This free floating signifier recalls Derrida’s description of the uncanny and in “Ted” it represents the unspeakable, inconceivable, unbearable notion that the loved and trusted new husband/boyfriend is actually a serial killer. The carnage beneath the floor confirms suspicions that were discarded as irrational, it opens out another set of possibilities previously unimaginable.
Ted is not the perfect man, he is actually a killing machine. Just like his fairy tale ancestor, Ted, the super-salesman, domestic wizard and serial killer continues to haunt from beyond the grave. Anthony Vidler suggests that this repetition is inherent to the uncanny. He writes: “The uncanny habit of history to repeat itself, to return at unexpected and unwanted moments; seemed, for many, to confirm the impossibility of “living comfortably” in the world” (Vidler, 5)`Inspired by the advances in his robotics, Willow has secreted some of Ted’s design features for future experimentation. There is no chance of living comfortably in Sunnydale, a world infiltrated by uncanny forces, a world that remains under threat of the return of the serial killer disguised as a perfect husband.
1. See Drew Barrymore’s film Ever After (1998 Andy Tennant), Jim Henson’s The Storyteller Series, Snow White : a tale of terror (1997, Michael Cohn), Freeway (1996, Matthew Bright) and the animes Blood the Last Vampire (Hiroyuki Kitakubo, 2000) and Jin-Roh (Hiroyuki Okiura, 1998) for contemporary reworkings of fairy tales.
2. Bruce Seth Green directed eight episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer , four episodes of Angel and the pilot of Charmed .
Copjec, Joan. Read My Desire : Lacan Against the Historicists , Cambridge, MIT, 1995.
Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic : 400 years of excess, horror, evil and ruin , London, Fourth Estate, 1998.
Derrida, Jacques, Dissemination , Trans. By Barbara Johnson, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1981.
Owen, Susan. “Vampires, Postmodernity and Postfeminism : Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Journal of Popular Film and Television , vol.27, no.2, Summer, 1999.
Perrault, Charles. Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales , Trans. A.E. Johnson [et al], Illus. W. Heath Robinson, Harmondsworth, Kestrel, 1962.
Punter, David. The Literature of Terror : the modern Gothic , Vol. 2, London, Longman, 1996.
Vidler, Anthony Uncanny Architecture : essays in the modern unhomely , Cambridge, MIT Press, 1992.
Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde : fairy tales and their tellers , London, Chatto & Windus, 1994.